(New York) – One year after seizing power, Thailand’s military junta has used dictatorial power to systematically repress human rights throughout the country, Human Rights Watch said today. The ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), led by Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, has prosecuted critics of military rule, banned political activity, censored the media, and tried dissidents in unfair military courts.
Human Rights Watch expressed concern that the date for a new election continues to be pushed back. Earlier this week the Thai government said that it would not keep its commitment to an election in early 2016, saying it would not take place at least until August or September 2016.
“One year since the military coup, Thailand is a political dictatorship with all power in the hands of one man,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The date for elections continues to slide, with no certainty when they will happen. Backsliding on respect for basic rights and democratic reform seems to have no end in sight.”
Sweeping and Unaccountable Military Powers
Unable to find other ways to sideline the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra – the sister of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted in a 2006 military coup – on May 22, 2014, the Thai military deposed her, and formed the NCPO under Prayuth. On July 22, the NCPO promulgated an interim constitution that grants the military authorities broad and unchecked powers, including immunity from prosecution for committing rights violations. The interim constitution provides that NCPO members and anyone carrying out actions on behalf of the NCPO “shall be absolutely exempted from any wrongdoing, responsibility and liabilities.”
Key constitutional bodies set up by the NCPO – such as the National Legislative Assembly, the National Reform Council, and the Constitution Drafting Committee – are all dominated by military personnel and other junta loyalists, meaning that there are no effective checks and balances on military rule.
On March 31, 2015, nationwide enforcement of the Martial Law Act of 1914 was replaced with section 44 of the interim constitution, which allows Prayuth as the NCPO chairman to issue orders without administrative, legislative, or judicial oversight or accountability. As a result, the lifting of martial law brought no improvement in respect for human rights in Thailand. Section 44 states that “where the head of the NCPO is of opinion that it is necessary for the benefit of reforms in any field, or to strengthen public unity and harmony, or for the prevention, disruption or suppression of any act that undermines public peace and order or national security, the monarchy, national economics or administration of State affairs,” the head of the NCPO is empowered to “issue orders, suspend or act as deemed necessary.… Such actions are completely legal and constitutional.”
No oversight mechanism exists to review the use of section 44 powers by Prayuth. He only needs to report his decisions and actions to the National Legislative Assembly and to the prime minister, a position he also holds.
“By replacing the 100-year-old Martial Law Act with legal provisions that are even more repressive, the military junta has effectively tightened its dictatorial rule,” Adams said.
Arbitrary, Secret Detention and Military Courts
The NCPO has summoned at least 751 people to report to the junta in the year since the coup. Most of these were affiliated with former Prime Minister Yingluck’s Pheu Thai Party and the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), known as the “Red Shirts.” Others were politicians, activists, and journalists accused by the military of involvement in anti-coup activities or insulting the monarchy (lese majeste). Under the provisions of martial law, and later section 44 of the interim constitution, the military can secretly detain people without charge or trial. Military personnel have also been empowered to interrogate detainees in military facilities without providing access to their lawyers or ensuring other safeguards against mistreatment. The military prosecuted at least 22 people – six of them for lese majeste – after first summoning and interrogating them.
The NCPO continues to refuse to provide information about people in secret detention. The risk of enforced disappearance, torture, and other ill treatment significantly increases when detainees are held incommunicado in military custody. The use of military courts, which lack independence and fail to comply with international fair trial standards, to try civilians has also increased. Three days after seizing power, the NCPO issued its 37th order, which replaced civilian courts with military tribunals for lese majeste offenses, crimes against national security, and sedition. Military courts have tried hundreds of people, mostly political dissidents and those violating NCPO orders, since the coup.
“The Thai junta has done nothing to assure families that those taken into military custody won’t be tortured or mistreated,” said Adams. “Instead the government issues harsh denials and lashes out angrily at journalists and activists who raise questions about torture cases.”
Censorship and Restrictions on Free Expression
Immediately after the coup, the NCPO forced satellite TV channels and community radio stations from all political factions off the air. Some were later allowed to resume broadcasting provided they excluded programs on political issues. The NCPO also ordered print media not to publicize commentaries critical of the military. TV and radio programs were instructed not to invite guests who might give negative comments about the situation in Thailand. In April 2015, Thai authorities suspended the broadcasting of Peace TV and TV 24, two satellite TV stations affiliated with the UDD after accusing them of violating the NCPO’s two announcements that prohibit criticism of the military authorities.
More than 200 websites, including Human Rights Watch’s Thailand page, have been blocked by the junta as threats to national security. The NCPO has banned public gatherings of more than five people and prohibits anti-coup activities. Protesters who have expressed disagreement with the junta – such as by showing a three-finger “Hunger Games” movie salute as an act of defiance, putting duct tape over their mouths, reading George Orwell’s novel 1984, or playing the French national anthem “La Marseillaise” in public – have been arrested and sent to be prosecuted in military courts, where they face up to two-year prison terms. On May 19, Bangkok’s Lumpini district police arrested a Red Shirts activist, Anurak Jentawanit, and detained him for 10 hours after they saw him at a restaurant wearing a T-shirt with the quote “ I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul” from William Earnest Hensley’s novel Invictus. Police later searched Anurak’s house and confiscated similar T-shirts that were produced to raise funds for political prisoners.
The junta has also prevented and disrupted perceived political discussions and differences in political opinions that it considered a threat to stability and national security. During the past year, military units in Bangkok and other provinces have cancelled at least 30 political events and academic panels. The military has also banned at least 12 seminars and public forums on issues related to land and community rights. At least 22 other public gatherings were blocked by the military.
The NCPO’s announcement no. 7/2014 bans political gatherings of more than five people, subject to a year in prison and a 20,000 baht (approximately US$600) fine. At least 63 individuals have been arrested since the coup for organizing or taking part in public gatherings.
Criticizing the monarchy is a serious criminal offense in Thailand. Persons charged with lese majeste are routinely denied bail and held in prison for many months awaiting trial. In most cases, convictions result in harsh sentences. Prayuth gave a policy statement setting out that a top NCPO priority is to prosecute critics of the monarchy. Since the coup, at least 14 new cases have been brought against suspects in the military courts and criminal courts around Thailand.
Military courts have generally imposed harsher sentences in lese majeste cases than had the civilian courts. Penal Code article 112 provides for imprisonment of 3 to 15 years for lese majeste crimes. Previously, civilian courts often sentenced a guilty person to 5 years per count. But since the coup, military courts have often delivered harsher sentences. In the case against a Red Shirts blogger, Thiansutham Suttijitseranee (known as “Yai Daengduad”), the Bangkok Military Court sentenced him to 10 years per count. For his five alleged lese majeste Facebook postings, Thiansutham received 50 years in prison, later reduced to 25 years when he pleaded guilty. Human Rights Watch is unaware of any longer sentence under article 112.
“Governments around the world need to press the military junta to end repression and restore fundamental rights, which are essential for a genuine return to democratic civilian rule,” Adams said.